Looking From the Outside

blog Nov 16, 2023

By Allison van Tilborgh

A cornerstone of the Christian faith has always been to spread the good news to the nonbeliever. We look from the inside out, identifying opportunities to advance the kingdom in “the world.” We journey overseas to build churches and deliver gifts or look for the nonbelievers in our communities, searching for ways to reach them.

But is it possible that, although we see ourselves as anointed, we are the ones that still need to be reached? Could it be that this assumption of solid ground on which we stand limits our ability to see the complete picture God has painted?

Nonbelievers, many of them women, are profoundly important in our Holy scriptures.  In the early history of the Israelites, the Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh, Moses’s Midianite wife Zipporah, and Rahab were perceived as both foreign and unbelieving in their times and places—yet God had elected them to do His work.

What would it look like if we opened ourselves to possibilities of God’s transformation in our lives beyond the familiar? What if, through their stories (and the stories of today), we could be the ones transformed by the radical acts of those we perceive as “other”?


The daughter of Egypt’s Pharaoh adopted Moses at quite a turbulent time. Political unrest and spiritual intimidation turned Pharoah’s heart to harm the most vulnerable individuals in society: babies. These would have been future leaders and fathers to future generations. Pharaoh’s throne, therefore, was built on blood and slavery.

Yet, in a defiant act, Pharaoh’s daughter goes against the grain of society and takes compassion on a Hebrew child she sees floating in the Nile. She reaches beyond her station and inherited system of beliefs. She came to remove herself of something (dirt, shame), and in return, gained something new by diving into the water. In that single moment of destiny, God uses her. She is, in a literal sense, the first to answer the cries of Israel.

Is it her instruction that prepares her adopted son, Moses, with the skills needed to negotiate with those in the highest echelons of the most powerful kingdom on the planet. His familiarity with the palace of Pharoah teaches him important skills about leadership, which eventually come into use as Moses leads the fledging Israelite nation in the desert. In other words, Moses’ adoption into a foreign society by a nonbelieving woman sets him up to lead God’s people.


Eventually, of course, Moses fully comes to grips with his multiple identities. He can’t deny where he comes from. Somehow, in the same moment, he is both fully Egyptian and fully Hebrew. He walks in power, yet is a member of an enslaved group. Above it all—and below it all—a living contradiction.

Anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows that sometimes all you can do is try to run away, as fast as you can. And this is exactly what Moses does after harming a fellow Egyptian. One of his own.  He runs into the desert with no plan and no provisions, just the desire to be anywhere else. To not identify with either group. He runs and runs until he finds himself in Midian, a region past Sinai led by the “priest of Midian” (priest of what and who is not clearly explained), who adopts Moses a second time and gives his daughter, Zipporah, to him as a wife.

Zipporah, in many ways, comes from a similar background to Moses. They are both children of political leaders leading a non-Hebrew theocratic state (probably pagan). Moses felt deeply understood by her, as an exile. This feeling of welcome gives him a new home. In fact, he stays in Midian shepherding for 40 more years, preparing for the ultimate shepherding role he will one day face, with his wife by his side. Forty years outside his Hebrew community and his Hebrew God, with no plans of ever returning. Moses is an unlikely candidate for what happens next—something transformative that changes the lives of both him and his wife forever: God speaks out to him from a burning bush.

Upon hearing of God’s plan, Zipporah could have broken down in tears, imagining this “new God” to be sending her husband of 40 years on a death march. She may have been confused, suspicious of Hebrew culture and religion. Yet, confidently, she supports Moses as they both experience a genuine conversion that transforms the nature of their community and life. She fully involves herself in Hebrew customs and confidently stands at the base of Mount Sinai (with her father) to hear God’s call to her and her children. She is open-minded. It is not because Zipporah was the perfect Hebrew believer that God selects her to be Moses’ wife. God uses Zipporah specifically because she is not that, and uses this shared worldview with Moses to create something powerful.


The influence of non-believing women in the early history of the Hebrew people does not start and end in the life of Moses. Just one generation later, in the Promised Land, God chooses, of all people, a foreign prostitute to advance the fledgling nation. Joshua’s two spies scout the land and find themselves in the private quarters of a woman who is already on the fringes of her own society. Rahab lives in the liminal space between insider and outsider. She literally lives in the walls of Jericho. Unaccepted, yet unable to leave. Yet God sees her and provides her a way out beyond the walls. He literally tears them down.

It is Rahab who not only provides the spies with the crucial information needed to win the city, but also hides them and protects them from harm. She treats them how she wished her own would treat her. She prophetically looks from the outside in, not the inside out. This posture of goodwill, in spite of all the bad she had experienced, ultimately also provides her and her family new opportunities—a new lease on life outside the walls.


The examples of women who have disrupted the traditional religious order of the Bible to bring about lasting change and deliverance are countless. Let’s look beyond the binary narrative that we are the only ones in the position of enacting God’s will. Or for that matter, that we are the only lives that have been touched by God’s grace.

Each of these three women were used by God to aid in the deliverance of those who were outside of their social and religious contexts. None of these women were Christian. All of them are ethnic “others” in an ethnocentric religious landscape. All of them welcome people they could have perceived to be “others” into their world. Is God so limited to privilege just “insiders” with His teaching to love our neighbor as ourselves? Do we remain open to a new work being done in us—from unexpected places and unforeseen contexts?

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